There’s a ton of fantastic stuff packed into Shang-Chi, but my favorite was choosing an antagonist who’s In the Mood for Love
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was compelling enough to get me into a theater, which is good because Disney insisted on releasing it in theaters only, while we’re still in the midst of learning about the impact of the Delta variant. Good job, Disney! (Kudos to the Alamo Drafthouse in SF for requiring proof of vaccination on entrance, and of course having lots of space in between the seats).
Still, the movie was worth the effort and the trip, stuffed full — overstuffed, even — of different movie genres they wanted to absorb into the MCU. Why not combine 30 years of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema into one movie, and throw another Ant Man in, while they’re at it?
I thought it was excellent, and a little more focus, plus some more breathing room between sequences, would’ve made it perfect. As it is, you just have to settle for several fantastic action sequences, tons of CGI spectacle that somehow managed to be genuinely thrilling, and several of the most preternaturally charismatic performers the world’s biggest movie franchise can attract and afford.
Ever since I first saw her donkey-kicking fools on top of a speeding train in Supercop, Michelle Yeoh has been my favorite part of anything she’s in. Simu Liu is so handsome, ripped, adept at both action sequences and light comedy, and so effortlessly charming, that he might as well have been genetically engineered to lead an American mega-corporation’s attempt at creating a new kung fu franchise. In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the movie, which is remarkable considering that everyone has to shift constantly between action and comedy with little warning.
So it’s saying something that even with all of that going on, the performance that stood out to me as exceptional was Tony Leung’s as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu.1Also I just saw on IMDB that he and I have the same birthday, which is rad.
It took the movie into a direction I hadn’t expected at all, making it feel more substantial than a super-hero blockbuster take on a kung fu movie. Explaining why would require spoiling some of the surprises of the movie, which would be a shame, since I was surprised that it even had the capacity to surprise me.
Continuing a theme for the week, I guess, with two songs from ABBA
If I’m sharing my odd pre-adolescent crushes with the internet, I should probably mention Benny Andersson. I was obsessed with ABBA as a kid, even by gay boy standards.
I’m not sure how exactly I first saw their videos — we didn’t get cable until after I’d “outgrown” them, so I guess it was Night Tracks? — but I was still impressionable enough that the one for “Take a Chance on Me” was hugely formative. One of my favorite songs being performed by a beardy man who dressed kind of like Han Solo? I was completely on board.
I’m also not sure exactly how obsession with ABBA became stereotyped as a gay thing. Obviously, the costumes were over the top, but it was the 1970s. There were plenty of glam pop and rock groups that were even more extravagant but weren’t publicly made up of straight couples. Still, the stereotype is pervasive enough that I know of multiple stores in predominantly gay neighborhoods catering to gay customers, called “Does Your Mother Know?” Which is a song that almost sounds more like Cheap Trick than ABBA.
It used to bug me that so many of the most common stereotypes applied to me; nobody likes being a basic bitch. But now there’s something kind of comforting about realizing you’ve got a common frame of reference with so many other people. As I’m looking through old videos, hearing songs that I’d completely forgotten about but somehow I can still sing along with every single word, it feels like I’ve had Agnetha Fältskog floating over my shoulder all this time, coming to me in times of trouble to whisper about good days and bad days.
When I logged back into Letterboxd for the first time in a year, I was surprised by how many lists of LGBT movies there were on the site. Looking over the contents, I was reminded of the disconnect between what most people think of as “gay movies” vs what I think of.
I have to say I’ve been pretty unimpressed by mainstream movies I’ve seen about or targeted at gay people. Part of that is that I just don’t like romances unless they’re romantic comedies, and gay romances in movies are hardly ever allowed to be anything other than tragic. The rest is that the movies either target such a specific subsection of the “culture” that I have nothing to relate to, or else they’re so corny and amateurish that I wonder how they even got produced. I’ve heard Moonlight get universal praise, and some positive things about Call Me By Your Name, but I honestly can’t work up enough interest to see either one. And apart from that, it seems like any gay projects good enough for mainstream exposure are either 1) starring straight actors in a story about how much it sucks to be gay, or 2) aimed specifically and exclusively at the Jonathan Groff demographic.
So I took it as a challenge to come up with a list of what I think of when I hear the phrase “gay movie.” (And not the adult kind). It’s the mainstream movies that felt transgressive when I was watching them, because I felt sure that I was watching them in a way I wasn’t “supposed” to be. It felt weird and isolating when I was an adolescent, but as an adult, it makes me feel even more part of a kind of community: meeting dozens if not hundreds of other people who had exactly the same feeling of I must be the only person in the world with this weird crush growing up.
And I should mention before anyone gets the wrong idea: of course the title of this list is only half serious, and it’s offensive to suggest that something as complex and personal as orientation is arbitrary enough to be changed by watching a movie. Everyone knows that it actually requires the more long-term, repeated exposure of a TV series, like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or CHiPs.
The Empire Strikes Back My obsessive hero-worship of Han Solo as a 6-to-9 year old turned into something else when I got older. Han walking off the Millennium Falcon after landing on Cloud City was my Ursula Andress-in-Dr No moment.
The Man Who Would Be King I didn’t even know about this movie until I was a freshman in college, and my roommate had the poster hanging on his wall. I was already a huge fan of Sean Connery’s after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but watching this one felt different. It made me a lifelong evangelist for the friendly mutton chops, for one thing, and I make sure to keep them in the rotation for myself. It was also a better vehicle for a confused young man with a secret crush than…
Zardoz I don’t remember when I first saw this, but I do remember that I spent the entire time feeling like I was watching something I shouldn’t be. Sean Connery with a mustache and a long braid wearing what was essentially a diaper with bandolier straps and thigh high boots was funny, sure, but it was a nervous laughter on my part. “Heh that sure was ridiculous, huh? I think we should watch it again a few more times, though, to be sure.”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The scene with Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant alone in his apartment with Jessica Rabbit (the “Dabbling in watercolors, Eddie?” scene) is the quintessential example of something that made me feel like a total weirdo as a teenager, but once I got older, I met so many other guys who had the exact same reaction that it’s practically a right of passage. It’s probably still a weird crush for a 16-year-old boy to have, but at least it’s one I’m comfortable with now.
Bull Durham When I first saw this movie, I thought everybody in the cast must be the sexiest person who ever lived. I don’t think I’d ever seen a movie with so many grown-ups who were so unabashedly and insatiably horny before. I can pretty much guarantee that I’d hate it if I watched it now, but in high school, I had the poster on my wall and everything, and I may or may not have blown it kisses like Laverne and Shirley did with their Beatles stand-up in the opening credits.
The Ice Pirates The most embarrassing entry on a list that includes Zardoz. Even as a teenager, I could tell that this movie was terrible, and I loved everything back then. But Robert Urich’s character was designed to be a pastiche of all the character types popular for movies in the early 1980s, which also happened to be a combination of everything that turned on a young gay nerd really into sci-fi and fantasy.
Big Trouble in Little China I don’t even think this one is all that weird; I think it’d be weirder to leave the movie without having a huge crush on Jack Burton and Gracie Law. Seeing this and The Thing around the same time had me wondering if my last words on my death bed were going to be the same as Walt Disney’s.
As somebody who was growing up as anti-union backlash was giving way to decades of full-blown Reaganism, I feel like everybody in my generation had already started to take for granted all the benefits of the labor movement by the time we entered the workforce. And as somebody who’s spent most of his career working in the game industry — which desperately needs to be unionized, but is bafflingly resistant to it — I’ve never been a direct member of a union, but of course I’ve spent my entire professional career enjoying the benefits of unions. For instance:
9 to 5 I loved this movie as a kid, but I think the full weight of the feminist message was probably lost on me. Which is probably my mother’s fault, because I had no perception of a world in which women weren’t smart, independent-minded, and capable of anything they wanted to do as a career, so the movie was more or less preaching to the choir. But even if you’re having to work for a sexist jackass, the entire concept of the eight-hour day is thanks to unions.
8 1/2 This movie is about Federico Fellini’s frustrations making his ninth movie, with Marcello Mastroianni as a barely-fictionalized stand-in for Fellini, and the events of the movie refusing to distinguish between what’s really happening and what’s in Fellini’s imagination. I thought this was a masterpiece of post-modern cleverness back when I thought post-modern cleverness was the highest thing you could achieve. The title of this movie has nothing to do with the eight-hour work day, but it’s nice to be reminded that if you did work 8 1/2 hours, that extra 30 minutes could be considered overtime.
Week-end Another classic I likely never would’ve seen without film school, this one is Jean-Luc Godard making a show of his mockery of filmmaking, bourgeois urbanites, politics, activists, and maybe all of humanity? Maybe most known for its long sequence showing a never-ending traffic jam that gets more and more silly as it goes on… until reaching the cause of the traffic, a gruesome, fatal crash. That mentality carries throughout the film, combining violence, gore, and absurd humor. It’s a satire of western civilization but doesn’t make explicit that the only reason western civilization has the concept of a weekend as separate from the Sabbath is because of the work of labor unions.
Joe vs the Volcano Even in the 1980s, when I had a much higher tolerance for on-the-nose earnestness, I felt like this movie was a little too much. But I didn’t really enjoy You’ve Got Mail, so this was a great celebration of how much I liked both Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. The story is an allegory for Hanks’s character breaking out of his dull existence and finding his spark in life, and the misery of his work environment made more of a lasting impression on me than anything else. “I’m losing my sole” was a pretty on-the-nose pun, but it’s still the first thing I think of whenever I start to suspect that my job is taking advantage of me.
Working Girl Kind of similar to 9 to 5, but this one is more classist and a little less explicitly feminist because the evil boss is a woman (Sigourney Weaver playing a villain that I actually liked better than the hero). Of course, the larger undercurrent is that patriarchy works partly by pitting women against each other, as Weaver and Griffith are both fighting for Harrison Ford’s approval, so maybe it’s even more feminist? Anyway, this movie remains fascinating to me because I still have no idea how self-aware it is. It’s got some of the worst dialogue, even by 80s standards (“I am not a steak. You cannot order me.”), and a lecture I saw from the screenwriter suggested that he wasn’t interested in subtext or any kind of layers at all. But that last shot, showing one corner office in a sea of thousands and re-contextualizing the entire “victory” of the movie — I can’t tell if it’s actually as sardonic as the ending of The Graduate, or if I’m just reading too much into Mike Nichols’s directing credit. Anyway, the title is a double entendre comparing secretaries to prostitutes, in a way that manages to be insulting to both. The 80s were not kind to unions, but movies like this at least helped keep the idea alive that workers were as crucial to a business as executives.
Bring it On Another weird movie with a baffling tone: simultaneously a predictable, fatuous teen movie, and a self-aware satire. It puts its cheerleading teens in a high school called “Meat Ranch” without comment. It’s directed by Peyton Reed of the increasingly good Ant-Man movies and a couple of fantastic episodes of The Mandalorian, so of course its self-awareness is intentional. I love any movie where different people on set at the same time each thought they were making something completely different. For several years, I had myself convinced that I couldn’t possibly be gay since I enjoyed a movie about sexy young female cheerleaders so much, which is a poignant story about the power of denial. The best character in this movie is Isis, played by an actress who always knows what she’s doing and is always in on the joke, Gabrielle Union.
Synopsis Vonnegut tries to recount his experiences as an American POW in Germany during the fire-bombing of Dresden by instead telling the story of Billy Pilgrim, a fellow POW and alien abductee who had become unstuck in time.
Pros Filled with the kind of writing that turns ordinary people into fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Its description of watching a documentary about bombers in reverse is so poignant and wonderfully written, it should come pre-highlighted in every copy of the book. The first chapter is like a magician explaining exactly how he’s about to perform a trick, but then the trick still feels like magic. Its explanation of the seven people it takes to make a human baby was a wonderfully absurd surprise. Its description of PTSD in the form of a barbershop quartet is in a lot of ways a fantastic encapsulation of the entire book: comical and horrific at once, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.
Cons Vonnegut’s descriptions of Billy’s wife Valencia are the only ones in the book that struck me as cruel. So much of this book is familiar that I have the sinking suspicion I read it in college and forgot about it.
So It Goes As a teenage insomniac, I was a huge fan of NBC News Overnight, the sardonic news show hosted by Linda Ellerbee that was later replaced by Late Night With David Letterman. Ellerbee always signed off with “And so it goes,” I’m assuming inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five (I haven’t read her memoir). At the time, I interpreted it as merely a cynical kind of self-awareness, a refusal to adopt the gravitas of other journalists who lent a sense of legitimacy to stories that were so often mired in nonsensical, repetitive, bullshit. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that Ellerbee’s presentation of the news, along with Letterman’s take on celebrity and the media, helped define my entire mindset up to and including my thirties. Now, though, I wish I had read Slaughterhouse-Five to fully understand the context of “so it goes” as Vonnegut actually used it: on the surface, it does read as an expression of cynical futility, but via its repetition — invoking it after every single mention of death — it also takes on a tone of reverence. No life is more or less important than any other, each one deserves to be noted and memorialized, instead of abstracted into an unimaginable number and especially not brushed aside as acceptable loss. It acknowledges that yes, death is inevitable, and constant, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.
Verdict A masterpiece of 20th century literature, any attempt to encapsulate it as simply “satire” or “anti-war” would diminish it. Its format — which could at first seem too flippant for the subject matter — is exactly what makes it perfect. Its mundane details stand out too vividly to be abstracted away or compartmentalized as they would be in a more traditional narrative that wants the reader to understand the deaths of over 140,000 humans in one night. It hops around memories of horror and the trauma of its aftermath, events that keep happening always, all at the same time. And which would seem fated to keep happening forever, much like events of World War II recounted by someone in the midst of the Vietnam War, read by someone during the end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan.
Surf Guitar and Outer Space are two great tastes that taste great together
Today’s theme for the Tune Two-Fer: Space Surf Guitar!
Although I’d heard examples of it previously, the first time I became aware of combining surf rock and sci-fi was on Space Mountain at Disneyland, when it debuted the soundtrack with Dick Dale doing a space surf version of Carnival of the Animals. It seemed like such a novelty, even though it made perfect sense: the “golden age” of surf music roughly coincided with the popularity of sci-fi B movies and TV series.
I admit that I’d always just assumed that combining space and surf guitar was a novelty the Pixies invented, on Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde. In my defense, if you compare their cover of “Cecilia Ann” on Bossanova with the original by the Surftones, it does sound like the song had spent decades Earthbound until the Pixies added otherworldly organs and echoes.
The above links are from Apple Music; here are the Spotify versions, if that’s your thing:
Marveling at how many layers there are to being a pop star and how much you have to do to get any kind of message out these days
I swear I’m not trying to maximize my SEO or anything; I’ve just been really genuinely enjoying Halsey’s new album and all the overblown, ostentatious marketing about it.
When I saw the album cover on Apple Music — the singer posed as a queen on an elaborate throne of bent metal, wearing a crown, a relatively understated gown, and minimal make-up, with one breast exposed, looking to the side while holding a baby to face the viewer — I had the most geriatric response possible: “Well, good for her!”
But really, it’s such a good image and it says everything the album wants to say, perfectly and immediately: it’s about femininity, motherhood, and power. It fits in with the medieval aesthetic of the whole album and its associated IMAX movie, functioning perfectly as both marketing and as artist statement. It shouldn’t be controversial at all, and I was briefly happy to think that we’d all finally grown up enough to realize that it’s not controversial. That’s the end of that, and good for… oh no wait it can’t be that simple.
I was in Target yesterday, where there’s still a tiny section in which they try to sell music on physical media, and while I didn’t dare go into that section — it was full of darkness and mists, and the echoing cries of Ariana Grande — I did start wondering how the cover would be received when it was on display in the more prudish parts of the country. Won’t someone think of the children who have never been confronted with the sight of a woman’s breast?!
Sure enough, there’s a Target Exclusive Vinyl edition of the album, and its version of the cover is hilariously cautious, deftly pushing the baby up and over a skosh, so that its hand covers Halsey’s offending nipple.
I also found this article in Variety from July with a press statement (from Instagram, apparently) describing the cover as part of an attempt to get rid of the stigma around breastfeeding, and to dispel outdated notions of the Madonna/whore, in which a woman can be either motherly or sexual but not both. That’s giving wide exposure of a great message to a younger audience, and I’m all for it.
Except it’s undercut by the fact that the Variety article itself contains the censored version at the top and embeds the uncensored version via Instagram within the article. It’s a hypocritical double standard, just driving home that when marketing and artist statement are unable to peacefully co-exist, marketing is always going to win.
I’m still extremely thankful to that Variety article for exposing me to this fantastic video from Halsey’s team, unveiling the album artwork back in July at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s far too long at 13 minutes, most of which is dead time showing Halsey traipsing through the halls checking out depictions of the Madonna and other Renaissance Moms with an inscrutable expression somewhere between “I totally get it now” and “Holy hell I’ve got to pee again already it’s only been like five minutes being pregnant suuuuuuuhhhhhcccks.” They also look back to the camera occasionally, as if to say, “Do you get it yet?” Finally, they s l o w l y walk out to the lobby to reveal the main exhibit: a giant framed print of the cover, taller than they are. Halsey yanks off the covering and walks out of frame, as if to say, “Yeah, deal with it.”
I genuinely, unironically like the overblown audacity of the whole thing. And while I understand that it threatens to undermine Halsey’s own contributions to keep mentioning Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work on this album, I don’t see it as a slight. It feels to me like a really successful collaboration. This video reminds me so much of the vibe of The Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails videos: simultaneously silly and cool. (“Mr. Reznor, please stop throwing your microphone away. We’ve talked about this. They’re expensive, and you need it to buy your house. These microphones are what make your house hot.”) I don’t like it because it’s silly — although my favorite part of the Met unveiling video by far is that they committed to the silent “Oh hello, I didn’t see you there,” opening, which is hilarious — it’s laughably absurd, and it’s thoughtful and earnest and well executed, at the same time, without collapsing into one or the other no matter how many times I observe it.
The idea behind the cover simply isn’t controversial; technically it may be more revealing but it’s still 10,000 times less sexualized than, say Halsey’s video for “You should be sad.” Which is itself a case of getting sillier and sillier as the video progresses, to the point where they’re sprawled out naked as Lady Godiva on a white horse. (And I’d bet you anything that the part that caused the most grief wasn’t all the mostly-nude people grinding on each other, but that they say “fucking” in a non-sexual context). After all, it’s not exactly news that record companies are eager to show super-sexualized images of young women to sell music, but will freak out if the young women try to take control over their own sexuality or to say anything with it.
But it’s not a particularly deep idea, either; certainly not something that requires 13 minutes of starting blankly at paintings to get across. It would be a little hypocritical to accuse anybody of making such a big deal out of an exposed breast, when the artist themselves is literally unveiling it in a museum.
It’s all part of this gigantic marketing blitz driven by people who have decided that Halsey is going to be a super-star no matter what, dammit. Just looking for articles for Halsey’s own take on the album, this weekend, I’ve learned more about them than I know about most musicians I actively follow. It feels invasive and, inescapably, less than genuine. I realize that that’s just how the business is now, where you have to have an entire alternate persona and multi-media marketing blitz just to make a dent in the public consciousness.
It’s also made it near impossible for commercial success to coexist with earnest sentiment. I’m not a fan of St Vincent’s current album Daddy’s Home, but I realized recently that it’s not just a case of disliking a bunch of songs while looking forward to the next album in a year or two. It feels like I’m rejecting this entire new persona she’s built for herself, pounding us over the head with 1970s imagery and merchandise that says “Daddy.” (And I confess I totally bought one of the Daddy shirts because I thought it’d be funny, and therefore I am part of the problem). It feels like it’s getting harder and harder to find out what’s real at the core of any of it, or whether it’s all just commerce.
Maybe sometime this century, the US will be able to get over its prudishness and misogyny, and stop sending out messages to women like “we’ll pay to see you naked, and you should be ashamed for it.” I’m just skeptical that the positive change is going to come embedded in a multi-million dollar marketing campaign.
Maybe this arbitrary list of movies will be more interesting?
Assuming that arbitrary lists of movies could ever be interesting, my list of 10 favorites certainly wouldn’t qualify. I’m not a connoisseur of obscure art-house movies, and if there is any new insight to be found in The Empire Strikes Back in 2021, I’m probably not the one to do it.
But what about the rest of the movies that are in my equally arbitrary Top 20 list? Is it interesting to explain why they didn’t make the cut? Let’s find out.
Miller’s Crossing For most of my adult life, this has been what I called my favorite movie ever. I can still vividly remember watching it in the Tate Center at UGA, and the moment that brilliant opening monologue about ethics hard-cut to the image of a hat blowing away in the wind, I thought, “This is my new favorite movie ever.” I love that they just made up gangster slang for this movie that was convincing enough to trick people into thinking it was real. I love that they made a whole different classic movie about how hard it was to make this one, and how much they’d crawled up their own asses. I love that it’s got some of the cleverest dialogue of any movie and one of the best action sequences (the attack on Leo’s house, obviously) and moments of great suspense and one of the most horrifying scenes with the “always put one in the brain!” moment. It’s one of the best movies ever made, but the truth is that I just don’t like watching it anymore. For a while, I told myself that it was because I didn’t want to interfere with my perfect memory of it, but I think it’s more that it’s an impossibly beautiful and clever work of art that just doesn’t resonate with me or connect with me anymore.
Halsey’s new album feels experimental enough to make me a fan, finally.
Halsey’s not completely new to me, although until about an hour ago, the entirety of my knowledge of their work was based off that episode of Saturday Night Live they hosted. (I’m basing Halsey’s pronouns off of an interview on Apple Music). While I was watching the episode, they were enough of a natural that I’d just assumed the show had added a new cast member.
Once I found out they were the musical guest and the host, I was left with the impression that they must just be one of those people — the preternaturally charismatic and beautiful people who can just do everything. It’s convenient I just read Circe, because my reaction is kind of like that character’s reaction to the Olympians: all these aspects of perfection but not much for me to relate to. I more or less liked all of Halsey’s music that I heard afterwards, but the songs passed through me like bran.
The album is produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which to me is most apparent in a track like “The Tradition,” which sounds to me like a song from a soundtrack that’s a little too somber and pleased with itself for being deep, which is the impression I get from most of their soundtrack and Nine Inch Nails work. I don’t even mean that as dismissive as it sounds; they really do manage to add a sense of weight and power to material that might otherwise feel slight.
It left me with the impression that this was going to be Ghosts I-IV but with a pop singer, but I actually don’t think it overwhelms everything. To me, it provides exactly the hook that pulls me in.
My favorite track is “The Lighthouse”, but “Easier Than Lying” is the point where I was struck that the album was something interesting. On its own, the song seems to me like fairly predictable early 2000s pop/punk; something that I can’t place exactly but I’d swear that I’ve heard it before. But in context with what came before and after, it felt Evanescency: maybe a little too self-serious to be taken entirely seriously, but damn if I don’t have the song stuck in my head, and it won’t go away. (And if you told me “1121” was an Evanescence cover, I’d believe it).
The rest of the album jumps between styles, but I think it manages to feel coherent. Much of it feels familiar to the point of being derivative — going from “Lilith” to “Girl is a Gun” in particular gave me the oddest feeling of deja vu to the soundtrack to The Saint. Not for any direct reference so much as for being a mish-mash of electronic music styles that somehow holds together.
Watching these videos — made by two guys younger than me, and one guy much younger than me, with a significantly different taste than I have and a different frame of reference for everything, but still pedantic enough to correctly use “infer,” which is something I respect considerably — made me realize that my opinion of the whole Matrix phenomenon was set back when I saw it in 1999, and I haven’t done much to reconsider it since then.
Even though so much has happened in the years since then. The movie went from hit, to blockbuster hit, through endless parodies, through backlash, to become a cultural touchstone of the turn of the millennium. In case that seems overblown, remember that The Black-eyed Peas are also a cultural touchstone of the turn of the millennium. It turns out Y2K did bring about the downfall of society after all, but it had nothing to do with dates.
Something else significant happened over those years: I stopped being the target demographic for movies like The Matrix. Two times over! Which admittedly is only significant to me, and even then only because it’s forced me to think of it as something that wasn’t necessarily for me. And I’m starting to suspect that when I saw it back in 1999, I was so dismissive that I was completely missing the point of it.
I can assure you that I did not leave the theater awestruck. I vividly remember sitting uncomfortably in my seat as the movie ended, and when Rage Against the Machine started yelling “Wake Up” over the ending credits, I said, “Oh come ON.” More than anything else, I spent the movie getting increasingly irritated at its clumsy, ham-fisted symbolism; self-important presentations of watered-down philosophy; and insultingly on-the-nose allusions to Alice in Wonderland. But the bullet-time effect was already familiar enough by that point that it felt gimmicky. Most of the novelty of the martial arts sequences was undercut by the fact that Chinese martial arts movies were getting more widely available in the US. The CG felt like a sampler of Terminator 2 and trends in CGI of the previous 5 years. And the rest of the design and art direction felt like Dark City with the gamma turned up a few notches.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think I’d be nearly as hypercritical of the bulk of The Matrix if I hadn’t been so turned off by its embarrassingly vapid attempts to be profound. In fact, my secret shame was that I liked the second movie better than the first one, mostly because I just ignored every second they spent talking and paid attention only to the spectacle, and at least at the time, Laurence Fishburne slicing up an SUV with a katana seemed dope as hell. I still wouldn’t be able to tell the two sequels apart from each other, and I don’t remember anything else in the movies apart from an interminably long rave sequence and a room full of TVs and an old man talking for what felt like hours. But I was happier, because I’d been freed from having to spend any effort trying to parse it as if it had something interesting to say. I guess you could say I’d taken the blue pill, and could go back to just watching the action sequences.
Now that it’s been over 20 years, the movie’s not just freed from its obligation to say something profound, but also freed from all the hype surrounding it. And I was in my late 20s in 1999, at or near the peak of my snobbery; how did it play to people who were teenagers at the time? Or who didn’t see it until long after it had been established as A Cultural Touchstone Of The Early 21st Century That’s Not Super-Relevant Anymore If We’re Being Honest?
Pretty good, as it turns out. There are lots of little details I never really appreciated that much — the color grading distinguishing the Matrix from the real world, the deliberate timelessness of the design, the weird things they do with focus and artificial reflections, the commitment to diversity in the cast from the start, and how much it managed to establish itself as iconic. I’ve still only ever seen the movie once in its entirety, but the scenes and the overall design are overwhelmingly familiar. Like it or not, it’s shoved its way into the collective consciousness and is here to stay, ham-fisted metaphors and all. And what’s surprised me is that I’m not mad about it. I like the rotary phones, the douchey sunglasses, the trenchcoats, the mish-mash of imagery.
The Caravan of Garbage video makes a point of asking how much of the movie was “stolen” from other sources, which surprised me because it seemed to be completely irrelevant. I can’t believe that even the Wachowskis’ most fervent fans would suggest that its strength was its originality. I thought it was apparent that the entire reason for the movie to exist was to be a pastiche celebrating all the stuff in anime, film, comics, and science fiction that they thought was cool. Like Pulp Fiction and especially Kill Bill were for Quentin Tarantino. Faulting them for not being original would be missing the point entirely.
And with that in mind, I started wondering if my getting annoyed by the vapid philosophy was missing the point as well. Maybe it wasn’t trying to blow anybody’s mind? Maybe it was just trying to provide enough of a thematic through-line for its action sequences so that it would be resonant to as wide an audience as possible? What if the Wachowskis were more interested in making an accessible action movie instead of being really invested in a message?
On the other hand: Ben Chinapen’s video was the first I’d ever heard describing The Matrix as being at least partly an allegory of being transgender. What if the Wachowskis were interested in making an extremely meaningful movie, but its metaphors weren’t impactful for me since I didn’t have the same experience for context? What if I’d spent all this time judging it as a “you’re a very special boy!” movie, when in fact it had a (slightly) more subtle message about the importance of diversity and self-determination?
So either the movie wasn’t earnest at all, or else it was very earnest about a topic that isn’t all about me. Either alternative makes me appreciate the movie a little more.
My favorite of the Wachowskis’ movies is still Speed Racer. It’s not really what I’d call a good movie, and in fact I have a hard time calling it interesting, considering that there’s sensory overload in every single frame and yet it still manages to be boring. But what I like is that it feels undeniably, unapologetically, relentlessly sincere. It is a movie that has no reason to exist, but they just willed it into existence, simply because they wanted to see it. There’s no ambiguity to it, no question of what they were trying to say, apart from “Here is a movie about a weird Japanese children’s cartoon called Speed Racer.”
Everything in 1999 and 2000 felt like it had some significance attached to it just because of an arbitrary date change. It’s entirely possible that The Matrix‘s cultural cachet really comes down to good timing, plus a savvy marketing team able to build up an aura that it was a watershed moment in filmmaking. Even though I’m softening on the movie, I still don’t buy all the hype around it. But I do think there’s enough strong imagery that’s made it stick as a symbol of its generation, even as all the other dingy, aggressively color-graded movies of the same time period have been mostly forgotten.
And now that I’ve passed my own arbitrary date change, and I’m finally finding myself outside of any coveted marketing demographic, I’m developing a better appreciation for things that weren’t made specifically for me. I think I’ve finally fully appreciated that The Matrix probably wasn’t for me, and that’s made me like it a little more.